When you step off the MTA train in Beacon, NY, an hour north of Manhattan, you enter another world. A small brick path with well-labeled signs leads you from the train station to the edge of a lake of molten glass, lapping a green-tinted wooden dock peacefully and bordered by an immense sky. After a short wait on the dock with your fellow out-of-town travelers, mostly middle-aged and sweating in their T-shirts, a low, flat-topped boat arrives and everyone piles in. The vessel glids you through the waves, with the sun glinting off the dingy aquamarine depths.
Bannerman’s Island divides the waters of the Hudson River, with sloping, viridian mountains on the surrounding shores. Bannerman Castle , built in the late nineteenth century, is tucked away on the northern shore of the island, mixing darkly with the distant foliage. The castle is all rust-colored brick and greige cement, topped with tall turrets and the phrase BANNERMAN ISLAND ARSENAL embossed on the northern side of the structure. Originally seven stories high, it is now an empty shell and a safety hazard; visitors must keep their distance, and if the wind picks up, must back away even further.
Upon docking, our merry band was met by volunteers dispensing cheery-colored hard hats. Our mud-splattered tour guide was a fast-talking font of information, and jumped into his rambling, repetitive spiel with little preface on the castle’s history or purpose. The hour-long tour was an explosive mashup of US and world history (some of which was factually questionable), Mr. Bannerman’s life, and fun snippets of information. Our guide randomly displayed period photographs taped to Styrofoam boards. Once, we were treated to a basic zoological history of the cormorant.
I’ll spare you the details of the castle’s past (military surplus warehouse, trading point) and its creator (jack-of-all-trades businessman, novelty purveyor). The castle is in severe disrepair, thanks to explosions and fires over the past century, and, most recently, two bouts of nasty winter weather that took down two thirds of the castle walls. When you become lost in your guide’s exposition of the island (and you will), focus instead on the natural beauty surrounding you. The space is remarkably quiet, but for the tromping of feet on dirt paths and the occasional speedboat. Subsidiary buildings, built in the same style as the castle, dot the rest of the island, along with small gardens and a covered flowering grotto. Try to stay out of the sun; the heat can be oppressive if the tour is in the middle of the day.
The Bannerman Castle Trust hopes one day to restore the island’s structures to their original grandeur. After the poorly planned tour, I was left unconvinced that such a restoration would be worth it without several big changes. The Trust needs a clear mission statement, a lot of organization and a few wealthy backers to supply the millions needed to stabilize the castle. The Trust is planning several innovative events for later this summer, including a Victorian tea party in August, and a dinner for forty guests in September, prepared by the former chef at the Governor’s Mansion. I wish them well; they have much work to do before Bannerman Castle can really shine.